Partition — an unfinished oral story

“My father came back in early August 1947 to take us away from Lahore. ‘I don’t like the stampede and the rush,’ he said. But he couldn’t leave because of the riots,” recalls Khalid Chima, a former bureaucrat, of his father’s attempt to go to East Punjab during Partition.

Feb 25, 2014


“My father came back in early August 1947 to take us away from Lahore. ‘I don’t like the stampede and the rush,’ he said. But he couldn’t leave because of the riots,” recalls Khalid Chima, a former bureaucrat, of his father’s attempt to go to East Punjab during Partition.

In Lahore, where he lived in 1947 as a child, Mr. Chima remembers the arson, the bodies on the streets and in the canal. “In June and July, in the bright sunlight, you could see the flames of the Shalmi market from as far as Model Town.” Eighty-one year-old Mr. Chima along with others, has been recording interviews for the Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP) Oral History Project started by a group of young people in 2008 to document narratives of Partition. Swaleha Alam Shahzada, CAP executive director, says the experience over the years has been interesting, especially with no organisation serving as a reference point. CAP, which aims to have a consolidated archive accessible to the public, has over 2,500 hours of audio and 50,000 images.

Archiving the past for the future

While more books on Partition with new approaches are emerging, this project is a reminder that Partition is not just a footnote of history; the social consequences of it must be taken stock of.

More than what he was witness to at that time, Mr. Chima says it is the effect of the whole process of Partition that he considers important. “We had very friendly relations with Hindus and Sikhs, and families used to go out together on picnics. In Lahore we used to visit each other for a whole day. That was the pattern in those days — no short quick visits.” He also recently came across some of his father’s papers which included a letter from one of his friends, discussing intimate family matters with his father.

It was not only in school but on shikar too that Hindus and Muslims ate together. “I was in the boy scouts and we used to go out on camps. All the boys had to cook by turn and everyone ate what was cooked. Our scoutmaster was a Brahmin; he used to eat with us. A neighbour in the village, Inder Nath Chima, used to spend his Sundays with us. He asked me once if we cooked beef in the same pots. I told him we never cook beef. Among many people in East Punjab there was a taboo on eating beef,” he says. He adds how religion never mattered even when a new boy joined school; concerns were more about how he would mingle with everyone, if he would be a good team member. The biggest loss for Mr. Chima has been the destruction of a “cosmopolitan multi-religious, forward looking pluralist society.” “I think the world is poorer because of that,” he says.

What his wife Nasreen, 75, a former teacher, remembers best is her feisty mother, Rashida Ahsan, a class mate of Zohra Sehgal. “My mother was a great activist who had Hindu and Sikh friends. She spoke highly of her teachers: Sarojini Naidu’s daughter and Ms Zutshi, Nehru’s cousin. After college, Ms Naidu held meetings at her residence to discuss the independence struggle. My mother, who otherwise observed purdah, would mingle with Hindus and young people of all faiths. These were secret meetings,” she says.

When Bhagat Singh was tried and sentenced, Ms Ahsan and other friends wrote placards in blood to protest but they were not allowed to carry out demonstrations. Her uncle, who was a magistrate, said he would get the placards distributed in public. “That was the spirit of Bhagat Singh,” Ms Chima says. Her mother once led a procession to the house of the divisional commissioner, a Sikh who knew her family. He refused to arrest her for violating prohibitory orders, saying his conscience wouldn’t permit him to do the same.

Her house was like a refugee camp in those days, spilling over with women looking for lost children. Massacre is one thing and being separated from your family is another, Ms Chima says. “If the massacres had not happened then, this migration would not have taken place. We would still be a plural, diverse and a tolerant society. We are now intolerant, sectarian and we are going through hell. I don’t know how it will all end.”

For Dr. M. Naeem Qureshi, 77, former professor at Quaid-i-Azam University, Partition was a reality that he wishes happened differently. “My father was in the police and we had a lot of friends among Hindus and Sikhs. It never occurred to us that this would happen. But this is a reality and we can’t turn our heads from it. I only wish it had not happened the way it did. The fallout is that even today the two countries don’t have good relations. The human casualty, both psychological and otherwise, was staggering.”

Dr. Qureshi was one of the few Muslim students in the Sanatan Dharma high school in Sargodha. During Partition he once went to school wearing a Jinnah badge and was almost beaten up. “My father had subordinate officers who were Hindus. One boy, Sagar, had a father who was head constable. He eventually opened an artist’s shop in Sargodha. We prayed together and went sightseeing together. It was a wonderful life but when this movement started, I could feel us parting ways.”

He is still waiting for an objective history on Partition which has “not yet been written either in India or Pakistan as emotions are still strong on both sides.” Mr. Chima adds: “Partition is a process and the last word has not been said on it.” Perhaps the oral histories will leave a constructive legacy.

The Hindu, February 25, 2014

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